Who knew that 39-year-old Junior Griffey could still incite such an uproar?
● Something that has been repeatedly pounded home by the local baseball opinion-makers whom I respect the most in recent weeks is that the Rangers' ultimate success -- or failure -- in 2009 will, to a significant extent, hinge on the reliability and performance of oft-maligned right-hander Brandon McCarthy, unarguably the pitching staff's biggest X-factor in that his boom-bust quotient literally registers off the charts.
Reliability and performance are intertwined with health, of course, and if I were coerced with the threat of bodily harm into picking a single encouraging spring training tidbit that I believed had greater implications for the Rangers' 2009 win-loss record than all the rest, then this might well be the one that I would pick:
A Nolan Ryan coaching tip has helped McCarthy achieve some consistency with his delivery, and it showed when he faced Marlon Byrd, David Murphy, Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz and Taylor Teagarden in live batting practice Thursday.
With his fastball whistling and his slider snapping, that group, in seven rounds of BP, managed to hit exactly five fair balls during McCarthy’s 10 minutes on the mound, only two of them solidly. To be fair, pitchers are almost always ahead of hitters at this point.
"He looked great," Hamilton said, "but ask me again in 10 days."
McCarthy and southpaw C.J. Wilson may share the rather dubious distinction of being relatively strong bounce-back candidates in light of their injury-shortened and largely ineffective 2008 campaigns, but the two compadres have evidently been among the brightest of the bright spots early on (Wilson told MLB.com's T.R. Sullivan on Thursday that "it feels amazing to throw with a healthy arm"), and to be quite frank, that needs to remain the status quo if Texas is to have any chance of weathering the season's first few months while simultaneously remaining within striking distance of the divisional lead.
One thing that does strike me as curious is that the Rangers, according to Jim Reeves of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, have tentatively slotted McCarthy as their fifth starter, with Matt Harrison presumably in the three-hole and Scott Feldman in the four-hole. If that is indeed the case, then that No. 5 starter designation is in name only, because McCarthy's upside is measurably higher than that of his two rotation contemporaries, and if McCarthy is healthy, he's not being shoved aside for the sake of anybody.
● In what essentially amounts to a follow-up to the suggestion from ESPN.com's Peter Gammons last week that the perilous state of the economy could strongly discourage teams from doling out over-slot signing bonuses in the 2009 MLB First-Year Player Draft (particularly to clients of superagent Scott Boras), Baseball America's Jim Callis submits that budget cuts could extend into the very heart of teams' player-development programs:
An assistant GM I spoke to brought up another area where teams may cut back—the international market. Teams handed out more than 100 six-figure bonuses to Latin American and Pacific Rim prospects in 2008, including the three largest bonuses ever given to foreign amateurs [...] The assistant GM noted that the players and money involved internationally are less known than those involved with the draft, and could be slashed without much backlash from fans.
Understand, of course, that the Rangers are in a similar boat with 28* other major league teams -- all of whom are looking to avoid the pitfall of superfluous spending right now. It would seem to me, however, that by slashing the funds allotted for the critical purpose of acquiring quality, high-upside amateur talent in foreign markets, the only entities that organizations would really be cheating would be themselves.
Texas has emerged as a dominant force in Latin America in recent years, utilizing what ESPN.com's Keith Law vividly described one month ago as a wholly unified baseball operations division that neatly packages amateur scouting, pro scouting, international scouting and player development. Now, does that necessarily mean that budget cuts aren't forthcoming for the Rangers as well? Of course not -- heck, Texas apparently cannot even absorb the costs that the acquisition of free-agent right-hander Juan Cruz would entail.
But the point is that this organization's consolidated baseball operations setup might be conducive to less severe budget cuts than those being imposed in rival organizations that already don't boast the presence that the Rangers do in the Caribbean, which in turn could place Texas in the unique position of having an even greater competitive advantage with regard to the aggressive stockpiling of foreign talent as the international signing period draws ever closer.
And that would be really, really exciting.
[* -- After the $420-plus million spending spree the Yankees embarked upon earlier this winter, I think the decision to separate them from the pack is a logical one, if only because the Yankees are simply not like other teams.]
● Finally, Clay Davenport has published the first iteration of Baseball Prospectus's world-famous Playoff Odds chart (with the results based off of the publication's proprietary PECOTA player forecasting system and preliminary depth chart projections), and while the fact that Texas is still tagged with a dismal projected record of 72-90 probably discredits the results from the get-go for a lot of people, it is fun -- in a sick sort of way, mind you -- to note that the Rangers' PECOTA-derived chances of reaching the post-season (13.5 percent) are lower than that of the Royals (15.3 percent), the Rockies (14.7 percent), the Reds (15 percent), and, yes, even the Nationals (15.0 percent).
We could really use some baseball.
Quick Hits: Teams have reportedly not been frightened off by Marlon Byrd's surgically repaired left knee, and the 31-year-old outfielder would not be shocked if he were traded at some point this year ... Jarrod Saltalamacchia remains ahead of Taylor Teagarden and Max Ramirez on the organizational catching depth chart, in that order ... Brandon Boggs (right shoulder inflammation) felt better on Thursday, but remains several days away from participating in spring training activities at full strength ...
Non-roster invitee Omar Vizquel was absent from the club's first full-squad workout on Thursday as a result of being under the erroneous assumption that it was to take place on Friday; minor league infielder Jose Vallejo, who has been delayed by visa and weather issues, will also report to camp on Friday ... Right-hander Jason Jennings says that his arm is feeling better than it has in two years ... Matt Harrison will start the Rangers' annual Surprise Sundancers Charity Game against the Royals next Wednesday.